Despite the environmental and health impacts of current methods of extracting natural gas, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have a clear position on hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking.” Even though fracking is associated with numerous problems, the EPA appears to be of two minds on the controversial practice behind America’s natural gas boom. Although each state is responsible for its own monitoring of fracking, the agency has nonetheless waded into the divisive debate on more than one occasion.
While the EPA has yet to establish a clear position, the agency does have a history of protecting the public welfare and managing fracking issues. In 2010, the EPA invoked its rarely used emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, to require fracking pioneer Range Resources to provide drinking water and install meters to measure methane levels.
In 2011 the EPA issued al draft report that indicated that fracking had contaminated groundwater at a site in Pavillion, Wyoming.
A major EPA research project into fracking’s effects on water supplies is due in 2014, as well as final rules on issues including the disposal of waste water and the use of diesel chemicals in the process.
Lisa Jackson, the EPA head who is scheduled to leave her post on February 14th, has cautioned industry to follow a “sound and safe approach.”
“if they [industry] don’t do this properly they will lose the trust of the American people in the communities where it is happening,” Jackson said.”I don’t think the insurance policy has to rest mostly, or entirely, with the federal government… It is not self-regulation. They need to be regulated, because it is an invasive practice. Fighting regulation and saying ‘We can take care of ourself here’ is…ultimately not a good path forward.”
However, on February 7th 2013, conservation and citizen groups from Texas and around the country sent a letter calling on the EPA Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry to resume legal action against Range Resources
for polluting the drinking water of homeowners near its operations in Weatherford, Texas.
In 2012, without explanation the EPA dropped its case against Range. While industry sources took this as vindication of fracking, independent scientific reviews appear to indicate otherwise. As reported by the Associated Press reported early in 2013, an EPA commissioned a report by an independent scientist in 2011 strongly suggests that one of Range’s natural gas wells was the source of the water contamination.
The real reason that the EPA withdrew its case against Range may be political rather than scientific. Early in February 2013, EnergyWire reported that former Pennsylvania Governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Rendell had pressured EPA to withdraw its case against Range.
“Based on strong scientific evidence, multiple EPA staff called for immediate action to protect homeowners from Range Resources drilling pollution,” said Earthworks’ Energy Director Bruce Baizel. “To discover that EPA retreated from protecting the health and safety of homeowners because of political lobbying calls into question all public oversight of oil and gas development. If the federal government can’t withstand political pressure from the oil and gas industry, how can we expect state and local officials to do the job?”
“EPA told me Range Resources polluted our well with their drilling,” said Steven Lipsky, one of the affected landowners. “I was shocked when they withdrew. That’s the kind of behavior I expect from the Texas Railroad Commission, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
“If industry is so powerful that it can dictate to the EPA, then who is left to protect the people?,” asked Alyssa Burgin of the Texas Drought Project. She continued, “The protection of our water supply should be at the fore of the agency’s responsibilities, without outside influence, industry interference or regulatory capture.”
© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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